NEPA Horror Film Festival Seeking Submissions

The NEPA Horror Film Festival is seeking submissions for the 2018 festival, which will be held at the Circle Drive-in in Dickson City on Oct. 7. For information about the submission process, check out the festival’s website.

Last year was the first year I attended this event, and it was sold out! I stayed for a majority of the festival, which featured shorts from around the world and vintage commercials and horror movie trailers. It’s definitely worth checking out and submitting a film if you’re a filmmaker.

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William Friedkin’s Second Dance with the Devil

Decades after The Exorcist’s release in 1973, its Oscar-winning director William Friedkin returned to the subject matter for a documentary entitled The Devil and Father Amorth, now streaming on Netflix. Set in Georgetown, where The Exorcist was filmed, and Italy, the documentary features a real-life exorcism performed by Vatican-sanctioned Father Amorth.

Raised Roman Catholic, I was generally unnerved after first watching The Exorcist. I was less terrified by Regan’s (Linda Blair) head-spinning and vomiting scenes and more spooked by the idea that some demonic presence would chose to possess an innocent 13-year-old girl for no apparent reason other than it wanted a showdown with a priest, a battle of good versus evil. The film was an adaptation of the novel by William Peter Blatty, who based the novel and screenplay on accounts of a Georgetown boy who was allegedly possessed in 1949. Blatty believed that something supernatural was at work, and Friedkin’s new documentary contains two old interviews with Blatty that restate his belief in the story.

While Friedkin never comes out in the documentary and fully says that he believes in the possibility of demonic possession, he does acknowledge that it’s possible there is another dimension to this world that we can’t comprehend. Yet, Friedkin never fully analyzes or acknowledges the cultural impact of his 1973 film. There are featurette-like scenes where he returns to the location of filming, including the famous staircase that’s such an important part of the film’s iconic ending, but he doesn’t acknowledge that maybe the belief in demonic possession exists because of films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, which were released at the height of the “God Is Dead” moment and got people back to church.

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(William Friedkin and Father Amorth)

Early in the documentary, Friedkin says that there are over 60 million citizens in Italy and about 500,000 have seen an exorcist. Let that statistic sink in for a moment. Roughly half a million Italians have seen an exorcist.

The exorcism that Friedkin films, his first time ever doing so, was performed on 40-something Cristina. It was her ninth exorcism. As Father Amorth tries to banish the demons, Cristina writhes in her seat, held down by family members and friends. She speaks in a gravelly voice not that much different from Regan’s. When I watched this scene, I had two questions: did Friedkin do something with the audio and was Cristina acting like she thinks a possessed person should behave?

In an interview with NPR, Friedkin said of Cristina:

She was an architect, and a very attractive, intelligent, soft-spoken, wonderful woman. And when she came into the room, I wondered: What is she doing here? What’s this woman doing here? She seems to me to be totally together. And then during the exorcism, she completely unraveled. She spoke in a voice that was completely different from her own. She had what I would say was an unnatural amount of strength for a woman of her size and age. And her entire personality had altered.

I was scared, seriously scared. I was two feet away from them … And it was terrifying. Gradually my fear turned into empathy for her. She was in seemingly unnatural and total pain.

The exorcism runs for about 15 minutes, and at times, it is quite dull. For most of it, Cristina squirms in the chair and growls in a trance-like state, while friends and family around her pray. It would have been more interesting if we actually knew more about Cristina and cared about her fate. Yet, the documentary never dives into her story.

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(Cristina and Father Amorth)

The director then shows the footage to neurologists at UCLA and Columbia. They admit that they can’t pinpoint what’s causing her behavior and they don’t debunk the footage. However, one of the specialists at Columbia says that if Cristina and her loved ones generally believe in the supernatural and the possibility of demonic possession, and if that is part of their reality, then an exorcism may be the best medicine for her behavior. I wish that Friedkin asked Cristina if she ever watched The Exorcist because I kept wondering how much popular culture has impacted her belief in the supernatural.

Sadly, Father Amorth, who was in his 90s, passed away not long after Friedkin finished the documentary. He was one of the warmest and funniest aspects of the film. He even had a ritual of literally thumbing his nose at the devil before performing an exorcism. Friedkin tried to reach out to Cristina again but had no luck. Her symptoms, however, did not end after the exorcism. Could there have been other reasons for her distress, financial or personal even? We’ll never know.

Even though The Devil and Father Amorth features footage of a real exorcism, it feels rather hollow. Friedkin is an accomplished filmmaker, and yet his characters in the documentary feel flat. Why didn’t he explore Father Amorth’s theories about evil and exorcisms, for instance? Why no serious interviews with Cristina? The film does raise some thought-provoking questions about belief in the supernatural, but The Exoricist makes a better case for real, raw evil because it contains characters that are fleshed out and well-developed. When a single mother watches her child succumb to the demon, we care what happens to them because we’ve gotten to know them. I can’t stay I know anything about Cristina after watching Friedkin’s documentary. Fans of The Exorcist should still check out the film because it may be the last time that Friedkin returns to the subject matter.

Poetry, Independent Horror, and August announcements!

Two announcements:

I’ve been trying to give some attention to independent horror films that I think are worth the watch. In that spirit, I’m happy to share this post over at Horror Homeroom on Mohawk and Downrange. Neither film is perfect, but both films feel especially relevant in 2018, Mohawk for the ways that it deals with the Other and Downrange for the way it addresses gun violence. Mohawk is currently streaming on Netflix, and Downrange is streaming on Shudder. Check them out! If anyone has seen the films, please share your thoughts.

Second, this Wednesday, August 8, Daryl Sznyter and I are teaching a writing workshop  and giving a reading at the Barron Arts Center in Woodbridge, NJ. The workshop is at 7, and the reading starts at 8. It will be followed by an open mic. The event is free. I’ll be reading a few horror film-themed poems that are part of a new manuscript in progress.

At the Drive-in

Tucked in the foothills of Central Pennsylvania is the Mahoning Drive-in Theater, which has existed since the mid-20th Century and currently plays retro films on 35 mm. This past weekend, they hosted the second Universal Monster Mash, featuring Dracula, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Surprisingly, as a Scranton native, I’ve never been to the drive-in, but what I experienced this past weekend, part nostalgia, part community, part everyone unplugging, made me a fan of the classic drive-in movie experience.

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(Photo credit Daryl Sznyter)

For each film weekend, the all-volunteer staff decorate the concession stand and grounds with props pertaining to the themed weekend. For Universal Monster Mash, they had a Gil-man prop, a six-foot coffin surrounded with garlic, a mummy, and Universal Monsters trading cards that you could purchase. Most impressive was the Frankenstein’s monster set-up outside, complete with a medical table and electrical towers that smoked. As fans dressed in black Universal Monster t-shirts awaited dusk, they snapped pictures next to the decorations or lingered over Screem magazine’s table, purchasing blu-rays of rare horror films. Families with children slipped on monster masks and posed for group photos, before lining up at the concession stand for popcorn, which, by the way, was only $4 for a large and included free refills.

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(Photo credit Daryl Sznyter)

By the time night fell and the projector’s beam of light cut through night and shined on the screen, everyone planted their camping chairs in front of their cars or huddled in their vehicles. As I looked around, I didn’t see the glow of cell phones anywhere. Everyone’s gaze was focused on the big screen. We were treated to vintage movie trailers, including one for Jaws 3, before they screened an episode of “The Three Stooges.”

Finally, James Whale’s classic 1931 Frankenstein played. I have seen the film countless times, written about it, and have taught it as a companion to Mary Shelley’s novel. Yet, there was something about seeing it at the drive-in on 35 mm with other fans that made it all the more special. Its iconic scenes were so much more striking, especially when we first witness Karloff in the Frankenstein make-up, looking at the camera with those dead, sunken eyes. I was pleasantly surprised that no one whipped out their cellphone during the films, not even the children. Maybe no one wanted to be “that person,” or maybe they were as awe-struck by the experience as I was.

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(Photo credit Daryl Sznyter)

Before and between the films, my girlfriend and I talked to other moviegoers. Some were local and knew that for a few bucks, they could have a fun weekend with their family. Others were horror or drive-in fans that travel hours and hours to the Mahoning when they host the horror weekends. One gentleman encouraged us to attend a drive-in event in September outside of Pittsburgh, the Super Monster-Rama, and he assured us that many in attendance at the Universal Monster Mash would be in Pittsburgh, too. While I always knew that a horror film community existed, I didn’t know about its drive-in subculture. Looking around, though, I saw plates from NJ, MD, NY, just to name a few.

During intermission, one of the hosts said that at one time over 300,000 drive-ins existed in America. Now,  about 400 remain. I suppose it’s easier to download a film to your laptop or watch it on your smartphone, but there was something strangely rejuvenating about unplugging for an evening and watching those Universal films with other drive-in moviegoers. For a few hours, I didn’t check my email or latest headline. So much in or hyper-consumer culture feels disposable, but this experience didn’t. I came away from it wanting to attend another event soon.

For anyone interested in the Mahoning Drive-in, which plays all types of retro films, not just horror, check out their Facebook page for the most updated information

Review: Ghost Stories (2018)

Ghost Stories, written and directed by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, is a British anthology horror film based on their stage production, but the narrative outside of the three tales is the real highlight. The film poses questions about how society views those who claim to have supernatural experiences and why we sometimes turn to the belief in the paranormal while grieving. In questioning reality, the film makes the statement, the brain sees what it wants to see.

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The film’s storyteller, so to speak, is the pompous Professor Goodman (Andy Nyman), who hosts a show called “Psychic Cheats” and discounts stories of the supernatural. After exposing a psychic as a fake, Goodman is summoned by his idol, reformed debunker Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), who hands him three case files and urges him to reconsider his world view.

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Professor Goodman (Andy Wyman)

Accepting the offer, Goodman first interviews Tony (Paul Whitehouse), a former night watchman of an asylum who is haunted by what he saw one shift. This first story is a slow burn, one that relies on elements of a traditional ghost story, including late night bumps and sounds, shadows, and a gradual build-up to Tony’s encounter of a creepy ghost girl.

Tony’s character is one of the most interesting. In the story’s wrap-around, he expresses disdain towards Goodman and mocks his professor title. He also mentions that he’s been jobless, due to immigration, and eventually, he confesses that he’s suffered personal tragedy. Rather than really listen to Tony, Goodman is quick to discount his experience and blame it on his personal grief and unstable life.

The second story, “Simon Rifkind,” is similar to the first tale, meaning that it takes its time building to its final scare. Simon (Alex Lawther) claims to have seen an apparition late one night while driving home from a party. Simon’s performance makes up for the generally weak story, especially when he cries into a crumbled tissue and tells Goodman that he doesn’t want people to think there’s anything wrong with him. The final tale, “Mike Priddle,” is generally subdued and focuses on a rather mild poltergeist that knocks over knick-knacks in Priddle’s (Martin Freeman) home. The story concludes with an unsatisfying jump scare.

The three stories, overall, are mild and it’s the in-between that’s the most interesting, the blurring of reality with the supernatural. After the first tale, Goodman interviews Tony’s priest, who tells him, “How unfashionable it has become to believe in anything other than our personal gains.” This is a personal jab at Goodman who makes a living tearing apart people’s beliefs that can’t be reduced to quantifiable evidence.

The conclusion of the film takes a reality-bending turn, and we’re suddenly thrust into Goodman’s past, presented with a childhood memory of bullies who tormented him and called him “Jew face” before inflicting even worse torment upon another child who they lure into a cave and leave for dead. At its core, Ghost Stories poses questions about reality, while relying on one key element of traditional Gothic literature: the past’s influence on the present. Goodman is haunted by his childhood memory and the boy left for dead in the cave, and as a result, he spends his life denying that the supernatural can be plausible or even that the past can have serious baring on our present actions.

The film’s wrap-around is its real strength, specifically when Goodman’s cocksure reasoning is challenged. The three tales aren’t that scary. Rather, they serve and advance the interspersed, more interesting narrative surrounding Goodman’s beliefs. Unlike other anthology films, such as Creepshow, The ABC’s of Death, and Tales from the Darkside, Ghost Stories makes its storyteller the real focus, and his journey should be considered the fourth tale. It is the most engaging and most substantive aspect of the film.

One Sequel Worth Rewatching

Sequels are always a risky gamble, especially in the horror genre. In the case of The Exorcist, it was always going to be impossible for any sequel to be as ground-breaking as the original 1973 film. No film prior had shown such unspeakable evil befall a 13-year-old girl, from head spinning, to vomiting, to levitation, to strings of curses that would make a sailor blush. I’ve always felt that the real horror in The Exorcist occurs in the first act, when Regan (Linda Blair) talks about her friend Captain Howdy and claims to hear scratching in the walls of her bedroom. Those unseen elements and that creeping dread that something is not right still unnerve me whenever I re-watch the film.

The film was followed by the god-awful Exorcist II: The Heretic, one of the worst sequels in horror history, two prequels, and a recent TV series by Fox that was canceled after just two seasons. Recently, I re-watched The Exorcist III: Legion (1990) in preparation for watching and reviewing the Irish horror flick The Devil’s Doorway. The third film in the franchise, written and directed by William Peter Blatty, author of the novel The Exorcist and its sequel Legion, is really the only sequel in the franchise deserving of attention. It is drastically different than the original, but in some ways, far more haunting, philosophical, and interesting.

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When speaking about The Exorcist III, Blatty once said that he was more interested in creating “creaks and shadows” than the “head-spinning” elements of the original film. Set in Georgetown 15 years after the original film, Legion follows the story of hard-boiled detective Kinderman (George C. Scott), who is jaded from years of investigating murders. The only thing he’s sure of is that evil does indeed exist but it has no supernatural elements; rather, it exits in the cruel actions of humans. At one point, he tells his friend Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) that God can’t exist because there is too much suffering in the world and humans are too imperfect, prone to self-destruction and diseases, such as cancer.

Kinderman is called to investigate sacrilegious murders in Georgetown, which have some connection to his friend Damien Karras (Jason Miller), the priest from the first film who saves Regan by asking the demon to possess him in the film’s closing minutes, before lunging out the window and falling down a set of stairs.

Jason Miller returns in Legion and stars as the mysterious Patient X, who looks like Father Karras, but how can that be, Kinderman wonders, since Father Karrass died 15 years earlier. Miller’s role is juxtaposed with that of the Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif), who possessed the body of Karras and spent years regenerating his brain. Dourif, most famous for voicing Chucky, is phenomenal in this film. He verbally spars with Kinderman, recounting, in gruesome detail, the murders he committed, and then speaking of his “friend,” “the master,” who made all of the murders possible. Dourif is given long monologues when he’s on-screen. Spittle flies when he talks, and his eyes become wide and impassioned.

Initially, Miller was not available to shoot the film because he was on the West Coast, but once he returned East, the studio insisted that he be included in the film. Blatty did not want Miller in the film, and his director’s cut only features Dourif. That said, the film is much better for having Miller in it, whose sunken, sad eyes speak to the torment of Father Karras’ possession.

Unlike the original film, much of the horror happens off-screen, the “creaks and shadows” that Blatty mentioned. Most of the murders are recounted either through the Gemini Killer’s monologues or through Kinderman’s detective work. When the viewer is about to witness a murder happen on screen, the camera often pulls away and we’re only given the gory details once Kinderman arrives on the scene later and gathers the facts and evidence. This is effective because it leaves much to the imagination.

The Exorcist III also contains one of the greatest jump scares in cinema in the last third of the film. Without giving too much away, I’ll merely state that it involves a nurse and the angel of death. You’ll know it when you see it.

Blatty didn’t want an exorcism to occur at all in the film, but the studio demanded it. The exorcism occurs in the final act, and it feels rather silly and ham-handed compared to the rest of the film, which relies on atmosphere, mood, and tone to establish its unsettling horror. Legion varies so much from its original predecessor because of all it doesn’t show and the way it uses light and shadow. The scenes when Kinderman is alone in a cell with Karras/the Gemini Killer, specifically the use of light and shadow, are incredibly effective.

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Patient X (Jason Miller) and Kinderman (George C. Scott)

Had the awful Exorcist II never been released, maybe The Exorcist III would have done better at the box office and garnered the attention it deserves. At least it currently has a cult following and has generally aged well. Miller and Dourif’s performances alone, coupled with the philosophical questions posed about the nature of evil, make it one of the best horror sequels.

 

 

 

Review: The Devil’s Doorway

 

Typically, I’m not a fan of the demonic possession movie. At this point, a lot of the tropes are overplayed and it’s hard to do something unique with the subgenre. Paul Tremblay’s novel A Head Full of Ghosts is an exception that I’ll make, but the book is also hyper-aware of the subgenre’s history. That said, I do recommend  The Devil’s Doorway, a rather unnerving film released by IFC Midnight and directed by Aislinn Clarke.

Set in 1960 at a home for unwed mothers, the film follows two priests who have been sent there to document a “miracle,” a Virgin Mary statue that bleeds from its eyes. Echoing The Exorcist, the film has two priests who are on the opposite sides of the belief spectrum. The young Father John (Ciaran Flynn) is a true believer, while the older Father Thomas (Lalor Ruddy) is a skeptic and is even called a “Doubting Thomas” at one point by his counterpart. Father Thomas reminded me of The Exorcist’s Damien Karras (Jason Miller), who was not initially convinced that Regan (Linda Blair) was possessed by a demon until the film’s final act. Father Thomas does not believe that evil takes a supernatural form. Rather, he sees evil in everyday human actions

This is one of the most interesting concepts of the film. We see the “evil” Father Thomas speaks of play out as the film progresses. The nuns, especially Mother Superior (Helena Bereen), abuse the women, especially physically. Yet, there is little faith to be had in the institution of the Catholic Church to remedy the situation. Early in the film, Mother Superior tells the priests that the Church will merely hide the abuses that the priests witness. They’ll sweep it under the rug as they’ve done with other scandals. Father Thomas knows that she’s right, and it’s probably another reason why he’s simply there to do a job, to prove that there is some rational explanation for the bleeding Virgin Mary statute. He does want to report the abuses, but he knows that it will most likely be fruitless.

Once the priests meet Kathleen (Lauren Coe), a pregnant teenager who the nuns have shackled and banished to the basement, the scares really ramp up. Some of them are typical of demonic possession movies, including levitation, contorted bodies, and ancient languages spoken in a gravelly demonic voice, but because the film employs the found footage technique, some of the scares are unique. For instance, when Father John films some of the events and loses light or the camera cuts off and then on again, it allows for unsettling close-ups of Kathleen in full-blown demon mode. This is the only praise I will give the found footage technique because I think it has been overdone at this point. How many shaky camera shots can we take?

The introduction of Kathleen and the supernatural events that unfold, including exploding Virgin Mary statues, allows for the growth of Father Thomas’ character, which is again somewhat similar to Damien Karass’ character arc. It causes Father Thomas’ seemingly sturdy belief system to be shaken and questioned, which makes him more vulnerable and human. Yet, beyond the film’s supernatural elements, there is something to be said about the everyday evil that Father Thomas speaks of early in the film, the fact that these young women are abused and forced to spend hours upon hours scrubbing floors, washing sheets, or doing other remedial tasks instead of being allowed an education. Even more horrifying is the introduction of Kathleen, with cuts and lashes on her arms and shackles on her wrists. The nuns see the unwed, pregnant women as sinners, undeserving of mercy or compassion. This, indeed, is evil.

Overall, The Devil’s Doorway is a solid entry in the demonic posession subgenre. It addresses belief and skepticism in an intelligent way. Some of its images are generally creepy and haunting, and perhaps, most importantly, it uses the trope of demonic possession to address issues of gender and mortality.

The Devil’s Doorway is currently in theaters and VOD.

Side note: I encourage anyone interested in this film to read this interview with Aislinn Clarke in which she talks about the real “Magdalane Laundries” in Ireland that inspired this film. Pretty scary and eye-opening bit of history.